Early in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to tell Raul Castro that he could not invite him to the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias due to a lack of hemispheric consensus. Once back in Bogota, Mr. Santos said that Colombia had "put out a fire" and pledged to discuss Cuba's participation in the inter-American system at the summit in order to prevent this issue from flaring up again before the next presidential conference scheduled for 2015 in Panama.
The Colombian decision triggered reactions from both Cuba and the US. It's hard to say whose discourse was more anachronistic. The statements made by Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez read as an impassioned harangue to the revolutionary Tricontinental of 1966. Hillary Clinton's responses to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen before the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to be addressing a rest home for Cuban-Americans who landed in Miami in 1962. Instead of adopting a conflict resolution approach, Cuba and the US traveled back to the Cold War, to a multilateral inter-American system that no longer exists. With one swipe, they erased five decades of changes in the hemispheric balance of power and the adoption of standards such as ideological pluralism, non-intervention and democratic governance.
Meeting dissidents should not be a litmus test for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba (A response to the March 19 Washington Post Editorial).
As the visit of Benedict XVI draws nearer, Cuba's internal opposition is stepping up its activities in an effort to use his presence on the island as a sounding board. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives of dissidents who were given long prison sentences in 2003, have eased up some since all of their relatives were released as a result of mediation by Cardinal Ortega. Now they are asking for a meeting with the Pope. In 2010, the Cardinal also managed to secure eight city blocks for them to hold their Sunday marches after mass at the Santa Rita Church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. On Sunday March 18, the group, which has never managed to fill the ceded space, pushed further, and were detained by the government only to be released several hours later.
Don’t get me wrong. In the Cuba I dream of, without an American embargo and with representative democracy, opposition forces would have the right to demonstrate peacefully. But that is not the issue here. The gradual recovery of social spaces has been central to the Catholic Church's strategic adaptation to the post-revolutionary system. Unlike the political opposition calling for the government’s acceptance of a disorganized partisan pluralism that has no relevance on the street, the Church gradually recovers social spaces and then negotiates government recognition. The Cuban Bishops demanded the right to parade the Virgin of Charity through the towns of Cuba after parishes overflowed with worshipers, not before.
Cuba and the Inter-American System: From the San Pedro Sula Resolution to the VI Summit of the Americas.
In 2009, in San Pedro Sula, the OAS General Assembly demonstrated a shift in the balance of power among the countries of the hemisphere in regards to Cuba by repealing the sixth resolution of 1962 meeting in Punta del Este. The OAS recognized that it was anachronistic to exclude Cuba from the OAS for being "Marxist" or for its relations with an alleged "Sino-Soviet axis" when the Soviet Union does not exist and the People’s Republic of China is an associate member of the Inter-American Development Bank. The resolution was in consonance with the expressed unanimous rejection by the American countries of the US embargo against Cuba, which was declared only six days after the Punta del Este resolution.
By linking the end of Cuba's exclusion to the OAS democratic requirement of membership in the same resolution, the 2009 compromise separated the repeal of the 1962 resolution from the process of Cuba's reinstatement to the inter-American system, which now depends on a dialogue between the OAS and Cuba, at the request of the latter. However, the inertia of the status quo in Havana and Washington has halted any progress and has placed a time bomb at the door of the VI Summit of the Americas to be held in Cartagena de Indias.
Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff's visit to Cuba has generated considerable debate. Some question the appropriateness of the presidential visit after the death of Wilmar Villar while others go further by criticizing what they identify as appeasement and under emphasis of human rights in Brasilia's relationship with Havana. It is obvious that Brazil's policy is not as effective as could be and that new initiatives could increase Brazil’s impact on Cuba's reform process. That said, it is important to recognize the merits of the policy designed by the Itamaraty in light of Cuba's political liberalization, rather than democratization, and the inherent synergy between a transition to a mixed economy and the expansion of rights and freedoms.
Brazilian policy toward Cuba is not one-dimensional. It implies a convergence of economic interests and strategic regional leadership with values from a Brazilian left committed to democratic governance. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry also employs a combination of principles of international law. As emphasized by then-President Cardoso during the democratic crisis in Peru 2000 and Venezuela in April 2002, state sovereignty is not a shield to violate human rights but as a principle should be respected. That position is reflected in the critical distance that Brazil, since its own transition to democracy, has taken toward the U.S. policy of confrontation aimed at forcing a regime change in Cuba.
Last week thousands of Cuban-Americans, along with a coalition of US groups that advocate a more responsible policy of engagement and dialogue with Cuba, successfully mobilized and dealt the pro-embargo faction a defeat that may be historical. The White House's resistance to Mario Diaz-Balart's amendment, which sought to use the 2012 spending bill as a vehicle to roll US policy on Cuban-American family visits to Cuba back to the Bush era, forced it to be withdrawn.
During the Bush days, thousands of honest Cuban-American citizens and US residents, who pay their taxes and love their adopted country, were forced to violate the law. Cuban-Americans had to go through a third country and lie to the authorities of the democracy in which they live in order to attend a birthday, a bar-mitzhvah, a christening, a wedding, a funeral or just visit their loved ones. Cuban-American legislators want to send the Cuban-American community, which they supposedly represent, back to that shameful time of constant attacks on American values and frequent violations of Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Late last week Guillermo Farinas began another hunger strike, apparently his 24th in 15 years, to demand that the Cuban government prosecute those involved in the beating of dissident, Juan Wilfredo Soto and his subsequent death. (Reports differ as to what extent the alleged beating by police officers brought about Soto’s death, but Farinas and others insist it did. In contrast, Sotos’ doctor and sister told Cuban media that his death was unrelated). Farinas’ announcement came on the heels of news that four individuals accused of distributing anti-government pamphlets in Havana were sentenced to 3-5 years in prison for acts of “defiance” and “public disorder.” The four men were apparently detained in January or throwing pamphlets in the air with the slogans including, “The Castros are assassins” and ” Down with the Castros.”
For those of us outside Cuba, it is often difficult to independently verify details of events on the island. This is particularly problematic when it comes to clashes between the government and anti-government activists. Indeed, after Soto’s death, prominent international human rights organizations including Amnesty International called on the Cuban government to conduct a thorough investigation saying, “There are too many unanswered questions.” Fortunately, in regards to last week’s case, Human Rights Watch was able to obtain a copy of a document sent from the state prosecutor to the Havana Criminal Court which indeed corroborates that the four men were detained for the offense as it has been reported.
If so, and the incident was a classic exercise in the repression of dissent, it seems Havana is of late, of two minds about how it wants to deal with such acts, incidents that seem to be on the rise. In recent months, the Cuban government tended to rely on a policy of “catch and release” in responding to dissident agitation, detaining individuals and imprisoning them for short periods of time. In contrast, the 3-5 year sentences handed down last week signified a notable shift. On this issue, Elizardo Sánchez of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights told El Nuevo Herald,
Yesterday afternoon, the House Foreign Affairs Committee postponed a much-anticipated vote on legislation that would end the Cuba travel ban and ease restrictions on food exports to the island. In a statement Committee Chairman Howard Berman said:
“The Committee had been scheduled to consider this legislation tomorrow, but it now appears that Wednesday will be the last day that Congress is in session before an extended district work period. That makes it increasingly likely that our discussion of the bill will be disrupted or cut short by votes or other activity on the House floor. Accordingly, I am postponing consideration of H.R. 4645 until a time when the Committee will be able to hold the robust and uninterrupted debate this important issue deserves. I firmly believe that when we debate and vote on the merits of this legislation, and I intend for it to be soon, the right to travel will be restored to all Americans.”
Unfortunately, Berman simply ran out of time. Which is all the more disappointing when you take into account the leviathon coalition put together by the bill's main sponsor, Collin Peterson, and then expanded by Berman in the months following Peterson's June markup of the bill. In the 48 hours before the expected vote alone, supporters were everywhere at once. Tuesday, a group of retired high-ranking military officials sent a letter to the Committee urging it to repeal the travel ban, the National Farmers Union reminded the Committee of its support for the bill, and human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - whom you might expect to take the opposing view - sent appeals to the Committee in favor of the bill. Yesterday, General Paul Eaton (ret.), a senior advisor to the National Security Network, penned a pro-travel rights commentary for The Hill, and Cuba Study Group Chairman Carlos Saladrigas of Miami authored a stirring opinion in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (the paper read by new Rep. Ted Deutsch and his constituents). And General John Adams (ret.) penned a persuasive column in today's Rockford Register Star (the hometown paper of one of the committee's members). And those are just the endorsements that I came across.
So where does all that momentum go from here? Two thoughts.